Saturday, July 20, 2024

Cincinnati Bengals training camp preview: Key dates, notable additions, biggest storylines

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2) Will the Bengals miss Joe Mixon? In order to process Mixon’s departure, let’s lay out a few facts. Mixon rushed for 1,000-plus yards four times in seven seasons with the Bengals, including a 1,034-yard, nine-touchdown performance in 2023. By the end of his tenure with the team, he tallied 6,412 rushing yards and 49 rushing scores, plus 2,139 receiving yards and 13 rec. TDs. But he was also nearly released before Cincinnati traded him to Houston for a seventh-round pick. So, what was his value to this offense? And can Zack Moss effectively replace Mixon as the Bengals’ lead back? When healthy, Mixon made a difference, but he wasn’t a game-changer whose abilities superseded the execution of those around him. Still, he helped the Bengals stay competitive even after losing Burrow, racking up 1,410 scrimmage yards and 12 scrimmage scores, and it’s not guaranteed Moss (plus Chase Brown, Chris Evans and Trayveon Williams) will be able to replicate that. Evidently, the Bengals felt they’d be fine without Mixon, but I’m not convinced yet.

3) Can new offensive coordinator Dan Pitcher pick up where Brian Callahan left off? Callahan departed to take the Titans’ head job, leaving a vacancy beneath primary play-caller Zac Taylor in Cincinnati. In stepped Pitcher, a coach with eight years of experience with the Bengals, including the last four spent as quarterbacks coach. That tracks with the Bengals’ top priority (Burrow), but supporting Taylor will be about more than just the quarterback. That said, there shouldn’t be a significant dropoff, because Cincy isn’t replacing a play-caller and an offensive system. Taylor is still in charge of calling plays, but it will be interesting to see if Pitcher’s promotion produces some new wrinkles in the offense — or if Callahan’s departure exposes a crack in Cincinnati’s foundation.

4) Keep an eye on Tee Higgins. Of the nine players franchise-tagged by teams in the 2024 offseason, only Higgins didn’t agree to a long-term extension. He instead signed his tag, setting up a prove-it campaign. This could go in a number of different directions, of course, but the hope in Cincinnati remains simple: Higgins and the Bengals thrive, return to the playoffs and mount a deep run. At that point, Higgins might play himself out of Cincinnati, but it’s still better than the alternative scenario, one in which Higgins struggles and starts to seriously consider how the season might affect his future earning power. In a perfect world, the Bengals keep Higgins forever. But both parties know this season matters a whole lot to each side — for different reasons.

5) Persistence is key. Despite finishing with a winning record, the Bengals were the only team in the AFC North to miss the playoffs in 2023. The division is expected to be even better — and, thus, tougher — in 2024, which is likely why HBO and NFL Films chose all four teams to be featured on Hard Knocks: In Season, intensifying the spotlight on each club. If the division lives up to its billing, the Bengals might find themselves in a must-win scenario down the stretch. They face Pittsburgh after their bye (Week 13 in Cincinnati), travel to Dallas to face the Cowboys on a national, Monday night stage in Week 14, then play the Browns — who have had their number in the Burrow era — in Week 16 before finishing the season in Pittsburgh. If the Bengals are going to reclaim a place of relevance in 2024, they’re going to have to earn it in the final month and a half.

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